I Admit It: I Liked The Fountain

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Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star in Warner Bros. Pictures' sci-fi fantasy The Fountain.

Movies critics can't agree on much, but there's one assumption most of them hold deeply without ever discussing it. It's that a film that says life is crap is automatically deeper, better, richer, truer than one that says life can be beautiful.

That's a 180 from the prevailing notion in classic Hollywood, where optimism was the cardinal belief, at least on-screen. (It was in the front office that the knives came out.) Most movies, whatever their genre, were romances; they aimed for tears and ended with a kiss. But to serious critics then, and to the mass audience now, sentiment is suspect. Feeling is mushy, girly — for fools. To be soft-hearted is to be soft-headed. So critics will see a horror film with extreme violence, or (less frequently) an erotic film with extreme sex, and accept these as genre conventions, whether or not they're grossed out or aroused. But a movie that tries to make them feel is somehow pandering to their basest or noblest emotions and, as they see it, deserves a spanking from any smart reviewer. These days, nothing is as easy to deride as dead-serious romance.

Darren Aronofsky must have known the risk he was taking as he prepared the ambitious movie romance called The Fountain. His previous films, the no-budget Pi (1998) and the low-budget Requiem for a Dream (2000), both quirky art-house hits, had been on the somber side, to put it mildly. To put it accurately, they were visual monologues that took place inside the deranged minds of their protagonists — respectively, a math whiz obsessed by the number 216 and a heroin addict with a possessive (and understandably perplexed) mom. Instantly, anybody could see that Aronofsky was one of the few American filmmakers who saw the cinema past as a jumping-off point, not a toy store to plunder. His films were full of promise; and more, they delivered on their promises.

Aronofsky then went the route of so many phenoms: being courted and misused by the big studios. Having spent $60,000 to make Pi, and $4.5 million on Requiem, he suddenly had hundred of millions dangled in front of him to direct a Batman prequel, or an adaptation of Theodore Roszak's meta-cinematic novel Flicker. Projects collapsed; time marched on.

Throughout, Aronofsky pursued his own epic, The Fountain, about a man who will do anything to save his critically ailing wife. The film was to cost near $100 million and to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The original financiers dropped The Fountain when those two bowed out. (They later reunited to make Babel, in which they played virtually the same roles.) Aronofsky slimmed down the budget to $35 million, cast Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the main roles, and made the damn movie. The whole trip, with all its frustrating detours, took six years. Then the Cannes Film Festival rejected The Fountain for its Competition selection. (You'd have to have seen the films the Festival chose to understand what an insult that was to Aronofsky.) The picture finally received its world premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival.

The history of movie romance is the story of beautiful people with terrible problems. That's The Fountain in a nutshell. Jackman is medical scientist Tom Creo, who's conducting experiments to "stop aging. Stop dying." He has been injecting Mayan medicine into the tumorous brain of a monkey named Donovan (a tribute to the 1953 surgical science-fiction movie Donovan's Brain) to find a cure for the cancer that threatens the life of his novelist wife Izzy, played by Weisz. That's one story. Another is the quest of a 16th-century conquistador, Tomas, to locate the Mayan Tree of Life for his Queen Isabella; this is also the plot of Izzy's latest novel. Finally, Tom is a space traveler in the 26th century, finding the Tree, and his destiny, in a giant translucent bubble.

At Venice, the bubble popped, and neither star could save The Fountain from a death sentence of boos at both the critics' and the public screenings. The film was dismissed as an expensive waste of time (although another high-IQ sci-fi epic shown at Venice, Alfonso Cuaron's dystopic City of Men, was reported to have cost between $80 million and $150 million). Weisz, who earlier this year received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Constant Gardener and became a mother, seemed equally maternal in defense of her new movie. "I think it's wonderful that this film is so different," she told the press. "I would love to work with Darren again." (She'd better say that. Weisz and Aronofsky live together, and he is the father of her child.) The film had an equally risible reaction at early screenings in the U.S. It opens in theaters today. Or as they used to say about movie bombs: it wasn't released — it escaped.

As I suggested, these critical catcalls reflect less the quality of the film and more the prevailing fashions of the art-house intelligentsia: in favor of bleak austerity, dismissive of sweeping sentiment. But on its own terms, this is a daring and impressive achievement.

Unlike every modern epic from Star Wars to Harry Potter, this one isn’t spurred by revenge (you killed my father, so I must wipe out your civilization). Here, love is the driving force (I will do anything to keep you alive), making The Fountain the rare quest film with a hero as selfless as he is besotted. Izzy calls Tom “my conquistador!” and she’s not kidding.

Neither is Aronofsky’s movie. Ever. It’s a truism of the adventure film that audiences can take it seriously if it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Play the material lightheartedly and viewers can enter into its world; play it straight and solemn, and they’ll get the giggles. The Fountain, which with its opening chords announces its life-or-death theme (and life beyond death), has no time or inclination for comedy. Every line of dialogue, each special effect, all those portentous glances underline the desperate urgency of Tom’s enterprise: to find a way to stop Izzy from dying.

Not to minimize the importance of overthrowing the Galactic Empire or dumping The Ring in Mount Doom, but shouldn’t there be a place in the canon of epic films for a story about a man trying to keep his dying beloved alive? Kids, who think they’ll live forever, might not hook up to this trope, but adults should. They’ve certainly seen it before: Armand trying to breathe life into the dying Marguerite Gautier, or Romeo trying to shake the poison out of Juliet, or Isolde going operatic over Tristan. The Fountain is essentially a classic deathbed scene, at feature length and sustained intensity.

Aronofsky brings every bit as much cinematic audacity to this film as he did to his first two, building elaborate visual motifs: Tree rings as a Mayan tattoo and as cloud formations; foliage that surrounds Tomas in the 16th century and grows through him in the 26th. Just as you didn’t have to be a junkie to appreciate Requiem or a member of the Kabbalah to go for Pi, you don’t have to be moved to tears by The Fountain to admire its complexity.

But I was. Those Old Hollywood romantic tropes still call to me. I was stirred by Jackman’s delicate power as a man both grieving and driven, spanning millennia, from the Iberian past to the astral future, to prove that love is stronger than death. I was impressed by Weisz’ commitment to the role of Izzy, though it requires her mainly to shiver and sweat. And I was touched that Aronofsky, who could have kept making spiky little art films (and that would have been fine), took a chance on himself and the movie audience with a love story that is likely to alienate his old fans and confuse the mall rats.

I regret only that he cut the film to the bone; 96 mins. is a fine length for Scary Movie 4 but insufficient for all the ideas, images and feelings Aronofsky wanted to cram into The Fountain. If you ask any director what the favorite cut of his latest movie is, he’ll say the four-hour assembly — and that trimming the film to manageable length is like hacking off so many limbs. (Presumably that’s why Peter Jackson has added 51 mins. of footage for the DVD of King Kong, which in theaters clocked in at an elephantine 3hr.7min.) In most cases, what was removed would not have been missed. But here, I’ll wager, there’s a better fat film screaming to get out of this good thin one.

I like and respect the short version of The Fountain. But I can’t wait to see the director’s-cut DVD.